RAOUL WHITFIELD – Laughing Death.‎ Steeger Books, softcover, July 2021; introduction by James Reasoner. Originally published serially in nine parts in Black Mask magazine from February to October 1929. Previously published in hardcover as Five, as by Temple Field (Farrar & Rinehart, 1931).

   DA Sanford Greer is trying to clean up Center City. Picture Atticus Finch. Precaution’s for the birds. Greer will take death when it comes. Courageously. Bring it on.

   His reward is murder by the mob. The mob has six factions. All six come together with a trigger man from each, a show of unity riddling Greer’s body with bullets from six different guns. The shooters shoot him down, cackling cacophonous laughter. Hence the Laughing Death.

   The body is missing bullets from a .38. One of the six was loyal to Greer and missed his shots. For that, he missed his shot. Snuffed. But not before spilling five names to the DA’s progeny and protege: Gary Greer.

   These five names form the original title for this novel of vengeance: Five. If Gary had it his way, there would only be more five chapters. Each one ending with death. But complications ensue, and it gets tougher and tougher to hunt his prey once his prey get hip to the game.

   Gary is a veteran fighter pilot of the war to end all wars. He runs an airfield near Center City. His plan is to fake his own death in a fiery plane crash, then return, incognito, a ghastly ghost, smirking a deathly grin as he guns these killers down.

   The first two kills are fairly smooth and easy. But then Gary’s cover gets blown, and the hunter becomes the hunted.

   Things are real tough because the head of the mob and the chief of police is the same guy. It’s not just the mob trying to rub out Gary. It’s the cops too. And there’s very little difference. No one’s honest, and besides Gary’s girl and his best buddy, there’s nobody he can trust.

   There’s a bunch of fancy air-flying action, machine guns a-blazing, bombs dropping on buildings, narrow escapes, and poisoned cocktails. Gary Greer, about half-way thru the story, reveals that he’s been deputized by the Feds and has a license to kill. And he does so with impunity. With immunity.

   What starts off as a fairly plausible hardboiled vengeance tale becomes more and more cartoonish, Gary Greer turning proto-James Bond as played by Errol Flynn, impossible escape after impossible escape, all by the skin of his teeth. Of course, when the bad guys have Gary in their sights, they can’t simply plug him. They’ve got to have sneaky surreptitious plans, each more complicated than the last. He must be killed with proper flourish and poetry. You can probably guess who gets the last laugh.

   It’s enjoyable as a B-Movie about a son, a heroic fighter pilot, a veteran of the War, avenging his father’s death and fading out with his beautiful black-haired woman in tow, in love, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Whitfield himself was a fighter-pilot and actor with a nice hardboiled chin and a well-groomed moustache. Perhaps he dreamed of starring in the movie version of Laughing Death / Five.

   If you read it for the B-Movie fighter-pilot revenge tale it is, in black and white, the bad guys in black, the good guys in white, it’s an enjoyable yarn. If you’ve already read Jo Gar and Green Ice and Death in the Bowl and you’re hankering for more Whitfield, it’s a nice light desert. Whipped cream with a cherry on top.

   Also reviewed here.